Cultivating a Movement
An Oral History of Organic Farming & Sustainable Agriculture on California's Central Coast
Edited by Irene Reti and Sarah Rabkin : Published by the Library of the University of California at Santa Cruz
“I tell the world that the organic movement started in California, in Santa Cruz County…”
—Congressman Sam Farr, Co-chair of the Congressional Organic Caucus
This book is a collection of interviews with people who were involved in the development of the organic movement in North America from its beginnings at the UCSC Student Garden Project under Alan Chadwick in 1967. Almost no one at that time had even heard of organic farming, much less understood anything about its methods and techniques, but
“Within a few years, a generation of young apprentice farmers had spread Chadwick’s French intensive/biodynamic methods and philosophy of gardening and farming across the United States and overseas.”
After Chadwick had successfully demonstrated the viability of organic methods to a skeptical and sometimes hostile world, a growing number of people became involved in its practice, its commercial applications, its legal regulation, its academic study, and its therapeutic value. This then, is their story.
When Chadwick began his project at UCSC it was difficult or impossible to find organic produce for sale, and when you could it was typically worm-eaten and gnarly. Alan showed that the flavor, nutritional value, and the appearance of organic fruits and vegetables could surpass conventionally-grown produce. Now organic has become mainstream. From Whole Foods to Walmart, virtually every major food store has incorporated organic food as a significant part of its product line. Over 75% of Americans now buy organic, at least occasionally, and that number is growing rapidly.
More and more farmers are turning to organic methods, both because they see it as a viable financial alternative to conventional farming, and because they now realize that it offers many health benefit to themselves, their families, and their workers. Most agricultural departments in major universities are now offering a specialty track in organic farming and sustainable agriculture within their programs. That agronomists, commercial farmers, and the general public are now embracing organic is a testimony to the truth that Alan Chadwick espoused almost fifty years ago. Although he was derided and rejected by the academic institutions of his day, history has vindicated his ecological and environmentally-sensitive approach to agriculture.
This has not been a smooth or easy road, by any means. Cultivating a Movement does succeed in dramatically capturing some of the challenges faced by those who took up the banner of organic and fought for its acceptance in the various domains of life: political, economic, academic, social, and personal.
We hear from Jim Cochran, for example, who pioneered the cultivation of organic strawberries in the California central coast area. Ken Kimes speaks the honest truth when he says that “the research from universities is paid for by the chemical companies and the ag providers” so, of course, it is not going to fairly represent organic alternatives. A few staff members at the UCSC Agroecology project share their histories and perspectives on the work done at Santa Cruz and beyond. A smattering of natural-food-store pioneers tell how they got started in the organic food business. The collection also includes a discussion of how Chadwick’s gardening methods are now being used to train homeless persons to become more self-reliant. These personal histories are an engaging tribute to the personal values of perseverance, tenacity, vision, and idealism that served the people who stood on the cutting edge of an initially unpopular movement for social change.
On the other hand, the oral history interviews with Orin Martin, Richard Merrill and Steve Kaffka are heavily laden with inaccuracies. Kaffka was involved in a ploy to force Alan Chadwick out of the University and take over his job, so his negative comments must be taken in the light of his personal ambitions. Martin bases his false statements on hearsay, but passes them off as personal experience and so cannot be trusted as a valid source of information. Merrill was kicked out of the garden for disobeying the rules and so he then fabricates an excuse that casts Chadwick in a negative light in order to justify himself. The fact that these unreliable accounts have been included in Cultivating a Movement compromises the integrity of the entire collection.
An additional problem is that, while focusing the spotlight on the people who promoted organic agriculture in the later 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and beyond, this book barely mentions the seminal role played by Alan Chadwick in the process of demonstrating the viability of organic agriculture. Aside from the misleading statements by Kaffka, Martin and Merrill, there is only passing reference to the man who set it all in motion. This cannot be a simple accident. There is obviously a bias operating here that intentionally omits the most important player in the history of the organic movement. In this respect, the book is a classic example of historical revisionism.
The introduction repeats the misconception that Alan Chadwick was a “disciple” of Rudolf Steiner, which is a serious exaggeration. Yes, in his youth, Alan spent a part of one year on a farm in Germany that was operated on the principles that Steiner advocated, and that was periodically visited by Rudolf Steiner, but Alan has stated unequivocally that he was “not an anthroposophist.” His use of the word biodynamic was idiosyncratic and never implied the use of the preparations that Steiner formulated and which seem to be the focal-point of anthroposophical-style biodynamics.
In conclusion, Cultivating a Movement is a flawed collection of personal stories by farmers, salesmen, politicians, academics, non-profit activists, and opportunists who jumped on the band wagon that Alan Chadwick created with much expenditure of his own blood, sweat and tears. It fails to mention or acknowledge either that sacrifice or the raw deal that Alan received at the hands of academia. It was conceived and edited by bureaucrats and librarians who never knew Chadwick personally, who in their ignorance have accepted uncritically the perspectives of individuals who personally capitalized on Chadwick's efforts and who have tried to vilify his name. Unfortunately, the narrative that the editors present here stands out quite clearly as the most unreliable work in the entire field of Chadwick-related literature.
[Contributed by Greg Haynes, July 2015]